Sometimes, if you happen to be walking along a track within reach of water at dusk or dawn, you might catch through the trees a glimpse of a tall, gangly figure wrapped in a mid-grey cloak. You won’t see her face – she hides that too well – but as you watch her move you’ll notice that her legs and her arms are unusually long, and seem to bend in odd directions. Hold your breath; you’ve been blessed with a sighting of Old Crane Woman.
If she stays still long enough for you to get a good look at her, you’ll see that she carries a bag which looks as if it’s made out of some kind of hide. It’s actually made of crane-skin, and the skin it was made from was the skin of her sister, Aoife, who was turned into a bird by a jealous rival. Once it belonged to the sea-god, Manannan Mac Lir, and then it came into the hands of the great warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill, but when he passed into the Otherworld Old Crane Woman crept into the deep cave in the heart of the mountain where he and the Fianna lay sleeping, and stole it away. She took back the power of the warrior; she is its guardian. And the crane bag is filled now with her treasures: shed feathers, fragments of fleece plucked from barbed wire in the bog. The shattered shell of a robin’s egg, the last gorse blossom of autumn. Splinters of bog oak, a lichen-encrusted twig. Her treasure are the treasures of the land: no more, and no less.
Old Crane Woman may gather treasures into her magical crane bag; this morning at first light I took to the bogs with a plastic carrier bag. But my purpose was the same: the gathering of scraps. Scraps to build the season’s nest, and the nest resides in a hollowed-out log which we found on our land, down by the river. We have no space in our tiny old cottage for a tree, and besides, a tree is too precious to be cut down and hung with baubles. And so instead we use a log in our ritual for the season: a Solstice log. Around that log we gather the gifts of the wintry land. Here it is, surrounded by heather, cotoneaster and gorse. Fleece from the fences, quartz from the boreen. A shell from the beach, a bundle of rushes tied with nettle yarn. David brought the horn of a sheep and the red berries of the Holly King from Loch Altan, up in the hills. Fionn the border collie found a particularly fine sliver of bone in the morning moor; Nell, his mate, donated an especially beautiful lichen-covered stick from the garden. There is a candle, and though we will light it we also will blow it out, for this is the season for celebrating the dark.